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Divergent forest sensitivity to repeated extreme droughts

Abstract

Climate change-driven increases in drought frequency and severity could compromise forest ecosystems and the terrestrial carbon sink1,2,3. While the impacts of single droughts on forests have been widely studied4,5,6, understanding whether forests acclimate to or become more vulnerable to sequential droughts remains largely unknown and is crucial for predicting future forest health. We combine cross-biome datasets of tree growth, tree mortality and ecosystem water content to quantify the effects of multiple droughts at a range of scales from individual trees to the globe from 1900 to 2018. We find that subsequent droughts generally have a more deleterious impact than initial droughts, but this effect differs enormously by clade and ecosystem, with gymnosperms and conifer-dominated ecosystems more often exhibiting increased vulnerability to multiple droughts. The differential impacts of multiple droughts across clades and biomes indicate that drought frequency changes may have fundamentally different ecological and carbon-cycle consequences across ecosystems.

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Fig. 1: Impacts of a subsequent drought are more deleterious than an initial drought for trees.
Fig. 2: Impacts of multiple droughts on tree growth and mortality are mediated by clade.
Fig. 3: Ecosystem impacts of a subsequent drought are more deleterious than an initial drought.
Fig. 4: Ecosystem impacts of a subsequent drought compared with an initial drought diverge across global forests.

Data availability

All datasets are publicly available. The International Tree-Ring Data Bank is available from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/data-access/paleoclimatology-data/datasets/tree-ring); the US Forest Inventory and Analysis plot data are available from the US Department of Agriculture (https://www.fia.fs.fed.us/); and the vegetation optical depth data are available from the University of Montana (https://www.ntsg.umt.edu/project/default.php).

Code availability

All analysis was done in the open-source software R with the packages that are documented and cited in the Methods section of the paper. Code will be made available on request.

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Acknowledgements

All correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to W. Anderegg. W.R.L.A. acknowledges funding from the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, NSF Grants 1714972 and 1802880, and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Agricultural and Food Research Initiative Competitive Programme, Ecosystem Services and Agro-ecosystem Management, grant no. 2018–67019–27850. A.T.T. acknowledges funding from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Agricultural and Food Research Initiative Competitive Programme grant no. 2018-67012-31496 and the University of California Laboratory Fees Research Program Award No. LFR-20-652467. A.G.K. acknowledges funding from the NASA Carbon Cycle Science Program, and through the New Investigator Program (award 80NSSC18K0715), and from NOAA grant NA17OAR4310127.

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W.R.L.A., A.T.T. and G.B. designed the study. A.G.K. and J.S. provided key datasets. W.R.L.A. and A.T.T. analysed the data. W.R.L.A. wrote the first draft of the paper, and all authors contributed to writing and revising the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to William R. L. Anderegg.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature Climate Change thanks Adriaan J. Teuling, Alistair Jump and Tao Zhang for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Impacts of a subsequent drought are more deleterious than an initial drought for trees.

Growth declines (Δring width index; a) from 1,208 sites in the International Tree-Ring Data Bank to an initial drought (Initial, light red) and subsequent drought (Subseq, dark red), categorized by drought severity of both droughts via the Standardized Precipitation Evapotranspiration Index (SPEI) thresholds. Identical data as Fig. 1a but shown as a violin plot. Blue dots are the mean. Numbers in italics are the number of chronologies in each bin. b, Growth declines differences from the International Tree-Ring Data Bank by clade where negative numbers indicate a more deleterious effect of the subsequent drought (left-to-right Nchronologies = 106, 410, 40, 174, 56, 291, 34, 257). Stars indicate statistically significant differences (*p < 0.05, **p < 0.01, ***p < 0.001).

Extended Data Fig. 2 Drought severity was typically similar between initial and subsequent droughts.

Drought severity differences for tree-ring (a), forest inventory (b), and vegetation optical depth (c) data. Initial drought (ID, light red) and subsequent drought (SD, dark red) drought severity of both droughts via the Standardized Precipitation Evapotranspiration Index (SPEI) thresholds. For sample sizes, see Figs. 1a, b, 3a. Error bars indicate ± 1 S.D. Stars indicate statistically significant differences (*p < 0.05, **p < 0.01).

Extended Data Fig. 3 Growth decline results were consistent across multiple tree-ring analysis methods.

Ring width difference during drought compared to average growth for an initial drought (ID, light red) and subsequent drought (SD, dark red) at SPEI < −2 drought severity threshold for the standardized (that is standard detrended “.crn” file presented in ITRDB) tree-ring chronology (“Std”; as in Fig. 1), a consistent spline de-trending method applied to all chronologies (“Detrd”), and a detrended and “prewhitened” (that is autoregressive model removed) (“PreWh”). Error bars indicate ± 1 S.E.M. Stars indicate statistically significant differences (**p < 0.01).

Extended Data Fig. 4 Impacts of a subsequent drought are more deleterious than an initial drought for trees.

Growth declines (Δring width index) from 1,208 sites in the International Tree-Ring Data Bank to an initial drought (Initial, light red) and subsequent drought (Subseq, dark red), categorized by drought severity of both droughts via the Standardized Precipitation Evapotranspiration Index (SPEI) thresholds. For multi-year droughts, the first year of the drought was analyzed. Error bars indicate ± 1 standard error. Stars indicate statistically significant differences (*p < 0.05, **p < 0.01).

Extended Data Fig. 5 All results are robust to accounting for spatial autocorrelation.

a, Difference in tree ring width index between a subsequent drought (SD) and an initial drought (SD) at two drought severity thresholds, where negative numbers indicate a subsequent drought is more harmful. b, Difference in mortality in forest inventory plots between a subsequent drought (SD) and an initial drought (SD) at two drought severity thresholds, where positive numbers indicate a subsequent drought is more harmful. c, Difference in vegetation optical depth (VOD) anomaly between a subsequent drought (SD) and an initial drought (SD) at two drought severity thresholds, where negative numbers indicate a subsequent drought is more harmful. Error bars indicate ± 1 S.E.M. Stars indicate statistically significant differences from zero (*p < 0.05, **p < 0.01).

Extended Data Fig. 6 Ecosystem impacts of multiple droughts are robust to accounting for drought severity differences.

Vegetation optical depth (VOD) anomaly (a) in response to an initial drought (Initial, light red) and subsequent drought (Subseq, dark red), categorized by drought severity of both droughts via the Standardized Precipitation Evapotranspiration Index (SPEI) thresholds. Panels (b) and (c) show the predicted minus observed VOD anomalies after construing a grid cell specific linear (b) and quadratic (c) regression between SPEI and VOD anomaly. Error bars indicate ± 1 S.E.M. Stars indicate statistically significant differences (***p < 0.001).

Extended Data Fig. 7 Ecosystem impacts of a subsequent drought are more deleterious than an initial drought, accounting for potential drought legacy effects.

Vegetation optical depth (VOD) anomaly in response to an initial drought (Initial, light red) and subsequent drought (Subseq, dark red), categorized by drought severity of both droughts via the Standardized Precipitation Evapotranspiration Index (SPEI) thresholds. All analyses used a 3+ year gap between initial and subsequent droughts. For biome definitions, see Fig. 3c. Error bars indicate + /− 1 standard error. Stars indicate statistically significant differences following other figures.

Extended Data Fig. 8 Analysis included broad geographic coverage of tree growth and mortality.

Geographical coverage of (a) the International Tree-Ring Data Bank (ITRDB) tree-ring chronologies, and (b) U.S. Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) long-term inventory plots included in this analysis.

Extended Data Fig. 9 Similar qualitative mortality patterns are observed in terms of mortality differences between initial and subsequent droughts.

This figure presents these patterns when excluding FIA mortality data from Intermountain West states (Nplots: 2848, 1270, 2559, 920; Ngrid-cells: 99, 43, 93, 54 left-to-right bar pairs). Figure legend otherwise the same as in Fig. 1b.

Extended Data Fig. 10 The deleterious impacts of subsequent droughts are robust to accounting for temporal trends.

Vegetation optical depth (VOD) responses to initial (Initial) and subsequent (Subseq) droughts are robust to accounting for potential trends in VOD. Left of the dashed line indicates the approach of selecting for grid cells without significant trends, while right of the dashed lines indicate detrending individual grid cells at the outset. Otherwise, legend is identical to Fig. 3a. Stars indicate statistically significant differences (***p < 0.001).

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Anderegg, W.R.L., Trugman, A.T., Badgley, G. et al. Divergent forest sensitivity to repeated extreme droughts. Nat. Clim. Chang. 10, 1091–1095 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-020-00919-1

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